Right-wing Israelis come out in force to support plan to overhaul courts

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Jerusalem: In a defiant show of force, masses of right-wing demonstrators have converged on Jerusalem to support an Israeli government plan to overhaul the judiciary that has deeply divided the country.

The crowd was largely made up of people from the religious Zionist camp. Many said they wanted a more Jewish Israel that put their brand of traditional values ahead of the liberalism championed by the country’s old, secular elites. Those elites, in the demonstrators’ view, control an overactive judiciary, the mainstream media and the bureaucratic establishment.

Right-wing Israelis rally outside Israel’s parliament in Jerusalem on Thursday in support of plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system.Credit: AP

Whole families came from all over the country and the occupied West Bank in private vehicles and on more than 1000 buses arranged by the organisers. The atmosphere was peaceful and mostly upbeat in what was most likely one of Israel’s largest right-wing demonstrations in nearly two decades – a counterweight to months of protests by opponents of the overhaul.

But despite the turnout – up to 200,000 people, according to estimates in the Israeli media – the prospects for the government’s judicial plan remained unclear.

The parliament is set to reconvene early next week after a spring break, as government representatives continue negotiations with the opposition under the auspices of the mostly ceremonial President Isaac Herzog in an effort to reach a compromise. The talks came after mass protests by opponents of the government plan rocked the country.

A month ago, before the recess, and with the country in political, social and economic upheaval, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced he would delay his government’s campaign to exert greater control over the judiciary until the summer session of parliament, allowing time for dialogue.

Left-wing Israelis, protesting against plans by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to overhaul the judicial system, hold an alternative Independence Day observance in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.Credit: AP

Critics say the plan would weaken the country’s Supreme Court, remove protections for minorities and undermine the democratic character of the state.

Supporters say the changes are necessary to give more power to voters and their elected representatives and curb the authority of an unelected judiciary.

“We have felt all our lives that there is no democracy in Israel and that the Supreme Court rules, no matter what slip we put into the ballot box,” said Yael Zilberstein, 36, an optometrist and mother-of-seven who came to the demonstration with her extended family from the largely religious West Bank settlement of Beit El.

Zilberstein said she voted in November for the Religious Zionism party that now sits in the government.

Israelis protesting against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the judicial system hold an alternative Independence Day observance in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.Credit: AP

“But it was meaningless,” she said of her vote because she expected the Supreme Court to overrule any government decisions its judges disliked.

Organisers billed Thursday’s demonstration as the Million March.

Demonstrators filled the streets outside the Supreme Court and the parliament building after organisers urged them not to allow the opposition to “steal” last November’s election by preventing the judicial reforms from going ahead, nor to dismiss them as “second-class citizens”.

That election returned Netanyahu to power, this time at the head of the most right-wing and religiously conservative governing coalition in the country’s history.

Thursday’s rally drew a crowd similar in size to the anti-government protests that have taken place over the past 16 weeks.

Demonstrators said they were there to support the government and to urge it to proceed with its plan for the judiciary – and not buckle to outside pressure.

“Stop being afraid,” they chanted. Some walked over a large banner laid on the road featuring portraits of Supreme Court judges.

The event was organised in part by leading members of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party and other parties in his coalition, including some who participated, prompting commentators to say that it seemed almost like a protest by the government against itself.

The prime minister did not attend the rally but sent a message of support. He has said there is no deadline for the negotiations, only a goal of reaching consensus.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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